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Chapter 19: Nifflers on the Loose
As January progressed, it turned out to be a fickle sort of month. Seemingly undecided as to whether it wanted to be snowy or simply very cold and wet, it turned out to be both. The snow on the ground melted and re-froze so many times that it was as if the entire grounds were covered in a sheet of rather hazardous ice. The falls and injuries resulting from this, not to mention the usual yearly round of colds, kept Madam Pomfrey indefinitely busy.
Even Beth didn’t want to stretch her legs too much anymore, if only for fear that she’d break one of them going down the slippery path. She, James, Sirius, Peter, and Remus were much more content to spend what time they weren’t doing homework indoors, preferably near a source of heat. The armchairs around the Gryffindor common room fire became molded into their shapes as they spent more and more time in them.
Nothing had been said about James’s declaration that night outside Dumbledore’s office, and Beth didn’t really see exactly how to go about saying anything – or if she wanted to say anything at all. She knew enough to leave it alone, because it was one hundred percent James and Lily’s affair, and not hers. And from the sincerity he’d had in both face and voice – and it was a bit absurd, considering he was just under eighteen, only a year into adulthood – she knew that he meant it. No one said a thing about it, and so she kept quiet, too.
She hadn’t heard from her parents since they’d sent her the competing, loaded Christmas gifts, and she wasn’t going to say that that fact didn’t relieve her somewhat. She loved both her mother and her father, but refused to be the pawn in whatever games of revenge they were trying to play with each other. She supposed she’d hear from them in the middle of February for her birthday, if not before; already she was in a sort of nervous anticipation about what new low they’d sink to then.
And so life continued as normally as possible for the five of them – James and Lily’s relationship forged on smoothly, their workload in preparation for the N.E.W.T.s seemed to increase by the day, and Sirius still spent what seemed like half of his waking moments devising new methods of mild torture for the first and second years. It should have come as no surprise to any of them when he proposed on one particularly wet and depressing afternoon, the day of the full moon, yet another prank.
“I don’t think so, Sirius,” said Remus, a little flatly, from where he was curled up with another one of his thick books in his usual chair. No one had yet forgotten Sirius’s mistake in trying to trick Severus, and whenever he mentioned another trick they all had the tendency to get a bit wary. But their friend was adamant.
“We haven’t pulled anything big all year,” he said with an edge of a whine in his voice, shifting his long legs on the floor restlessly. Apparently he was edging around the midnight prank issue, too, for he talked about it as though it hadn’t happened. “Can we do something? Please?” he added, as though hoping his politeness would sway the attitude.
James had an eager and yet apprehensive look on his face; Beth thought he was probably torn in both directions on the subject. “As long as it doesn’t involve nearly killing people,” he said, only half-kidding, "I’m up for it.”
Sirius looked hopeful and glanced around at Beth where she sat on the ground next to him. “Bethy?” he implored, widening his eyes slightly as though hoping this made him look more innocent. She rolled her eyes but a small smile twisted the corners of her mouth. She’d been a bit bored, as well, although she was certainly reluctant to admit it to him.
“So that’s all settled then,” he said happily, seeming to decide that majority ruled in this decision. Remus raised one eyebrow but said nothing; he was just as bored as the rest of them, prefect or no, and a bit of practical joking seemed to meet his standards of what he could and couldn’t do as such.
“So what do you have in mind, mate?” said James, tossing aside his heavily scratched-out Potions assignment and sitting up a bit further, his fresh excitement nearly tangible. Sirius shook his long dark hair from in front of his eyes.
“We could go down to the dungeons and shrink all the cauldrons,” spoke up Peter from beside Remus. Peter was also buried nose-first in a book, but was evidently less engaged in it than the other.
“No, that’s no good,” said Sirius, waving his hand dismissively. “Slughorn won’t let us back in there between classes ever since James and Beth bewitched all the wall sconces to shoot wads of sparks at anyone closer than six feet.” Beth grinned proudly at the memory; that had been one of her more brilliant prank ideas in the years she’d been friends with these boys. It had been rather amusing to watch Evan Rosier's face as he realized how badly his hair had been singed, although the burnt hair smell had taken a few hours to completely disappear from her nose.
The five sat in unified puzzlement, each brow furrowed. Then, of all people, Remus began to get a rather pensive and mischievous look in his eye, which the others noticed almost simultaneously. It wasn’t often that he was the mastermind behind whichever joke they decided to pull – he had more conscience than the rest of them put together – but when he did, it was always brilliant.
“Do you suppose the house elves have set up the dinnerware yet?” he said casually, but his quill had stopped moving along with the lines in his book, a sure sign he was thinking. Beth couldn’t follow his train of thought at all but decided to go with it.
“Could be,” she said, shrugging her shoulders slightly. “Any particular reason why you’re asking?”
“Yep,” he said, and revealed nothing further. The book landed with a thump on the sagging cushion next to him as he tossed it aside and rose to his feet. The other four immediately followed suit, despite still having no idea what sort of prank Remus was planning. In a wordless file they climbed through the portrait hole and set off in the direction of the Great Hall.
It was nothing short of lucky that they didn’t meet anyone on their way down, especially due to the fact that the weather outside was still an oppressive gray. The five congregated just to the left of the doors into the hall, near the antechamber where first years waited before the start-of-term feast, and everyone looked at each other. No one spoke.
“Well, are you going in, then?” Sirius said finally, his eyes darting pointedly between Remus and the door at his back. It was clear the latter was now regretting his decision to even bring up whatever his idea was; his conscience was catching up with him. As Beth and the others watched, he sucked in a deep breath through his teeth and turned.
“They’re going to catch me and I’m going to get sent to Dumbledore’s and I’ll get my badge taken away and I’ll be expelled –“ He started muttering in a nonsensical stream, taking slow and determined steps toward the door.
“They’re elves,” Beth called pointedly at his slowly retreating back. “The worst they might do is kick you in the shins, and more than likely they’re going to offer you coffee.” With a sullen look back at her, Remus cracked the door open a few inches and sidled through.
“Blimey, what do you reckon he’s doing?” said Peter with a bit of relish, standing on his tiptoes to see if he could peer inside. “I hope he’s doing something with the floating candles – I’ve always said –“
But what he’d always said, they never found out, for Remus had apparently gotten what he needed in absolute record time. His face flushed, his hair falling limply onto his forehead, he trotted over to them, clutching a bundle of something in the front of his robes. Whatever it was, it was giving off an odd and somehow familiar clanking noise.
“Let’s see it, then. What did you do?” said James, stretching out a hand to take whatever Remus had. He fumbled around the neck of his robes and pulled out one of the standard golden goblets that sat by the plates every meal. James took it with a sort of disappointment.
“You... nicked a goblet,” he said, as though he hoped he was seeing things.
“Not one. Four,” said Remus, and sure enough, he procured four more from seeming oblivion, passing them around until everyone except himself held a cup. Beth studied hers, trying to see if something had changed about it, but it looked exactly the same as every other cup she’d ever drank from at school.
“This is a bit of a tame thing, compared to what we’ve done before, isn’t it?” said Sirius, tossing the goblet up in the air; it twirled around and he caught it easily by the stem. He held it up to the light, but the torch only shone on it; it was otherwise unchanged.
“No, listen. We can do a bit of Transfiguration on these, and – here, let me show you.” From another pocket in his robes Remus drew out his wand, along with the parchment and quill he’d stuffed there before they had left the common room. Wand clenched delicately between his teeth, he knelt on the floor and tore the paper into four pieces.
“One… two… three… five,” he muttered aloud, writing the numbers in large, careful handwriting on the parchment pieces.
“I think you missed one,” said Peter cheerfully, craning his neck to look over Remus’s shoulder, but he was immediately waved off with an air of impatience. Remus climbed to his feet again and took the goblet from Beth, who was standing to his immediate left.
“Verto Invertus,” he said, tapping the rim of the goblet; it transfigured almost instantly into a rather large niffler, and both Beth and Peter jumped back a few steps.
“Clever, isn’t it?” said Remus proudly, handing the niffler back to Beth, who took it gingerly, thinking that she picked a good day to leave her bracelets safely tucked in her jewelry box. She still didn’t understand exactly what they were going to do with nifflers and four out-of-order numbers, at any rate.
Sirius apparently shared this concern. “I’m afraid you’ve lost us, mate,” he said baldly.
“We tie the numbers around their necks, see,” said Remus patiently, leaning over Beth’s niffler as he spoke and doing so with the parchment quarter labeled with the number one. “And set them loose about the castle. They’re sure to find something to catch their attention, Hogwarts is full of shiny objects. And they’ll go mad looking for it, won't they?”
Something dawned on James’s face. “But even though we’ll only release four... they’ll think we’ve let off five?” he said, motioning toward the other squares, and Remus nodded proudly.
Sirius let out his usual loud bark-like laugh. “That really is brilliant!” he said gleefully, nearly tossing his goblet halfway across the entrance hall in his excitement. “Quick, Moony, do mine, before someone catches us.”
Within five minutes, the nifflers were assembled in the Gryffindors’ hands, snuffling about curiously and batting their little feet, anxious to start looking for the metal objects they seemed to sense. “You four split up and meet back in the common room in fifteen minutes,” said Remus, shaking back his sleeve to check his watch. “I’ll head back up there now.”
“I’ve got the corridor near the trophy room,” said James, and immediately turned and trotted off in that direction. Sirius claimed the corridor near Moaning Myrtle’s bathroom, and Beth spoke up.
“I’ll go near the Divination Tower,” she said. Remus nodded, eyes still trained on her watch, and clutching the niffler tightly around its furry middle she set off at a quick clip in that direction. The sky outside the windows had begun to lighten only slightly, and small shafts of sunlight began peeking through the clouds. She hoped no one else was noticing its emergence, though; she didn’t want to meet anyone on her way there.
The Divination Tower was all the way at the other end of the castle, and she was panting by the time she reached the set of stairs that led up to Professor Amelon’s trapdoor, the only way to enter the classroom. She took one look at the stairs and decided that this was as far as she felt like going at the moment.
“Here you go, buddy,” she said, bending and setting the niffler down in the middle of the worn purple carpet runner. It looked curiously up at her with its dark eyes, nose still snuffling slightly, and then a glint of something caught its eye. It lunged for the nearest window casement, snout quivering, and Beth turned away quickly before she would have to lie about being a witness to the havoc it would wreak.
The other four were already assembled back in the common room when she clambered as nonchalantly as possible back through the portrait hole; grins were barely concealed on each face. Sirius shot her a covert, questioning thumbs-up, and she gave the briefest of nods before picking up the abandoned pack of Exploding Snap cards on the hearth. She began to shuffle them idly, hoping that it wouldn’t be long before Filch discovered the nifflers.
As it turned out, it wasn’t long at all – an hour later, the Gryffindors in the tower were just beginning to prepare to head down to dinner when an enraged yell echoed along the corridor outside where the Fat Lady’s portrait hung. There was no mistaking that yell anywhere, for the caretaker’s bellows had fallen on the years of nearly every Hogwarts student at least once. Eagerly, five heads swiveled in the direction of the cacophony, each hoarse scream like music to their ears.
“PEEVES, YOU BLITHERING – SETTING NIFFLERS – I’LL HAVE YOU – DESTROYING SCHOOL PROPERTY – HOW YOU GOT HOLD OF – GOING TO DUMBLEDORE – !” His footsteps thundered past; they were accompanied by heavy and wheezy breathing which was completely audible even from where they sat around the common room fire. Peter and Sirius were double over with extreme and completely silent laughter.
Curious students had begun to edge tentatively toward the portrait hole, trying to look like they weren’t being blatantly nosy, but James brushed past them all and scrambled out the portrait hole; like a signal, nearly half the house followed, not wanting to miss a good Filch tirade.
At the end of the corridor, near the turn that led to the grand staircase, Peeves was bobbing in midair with an innocent expression on his wide, tricky face. Filch was standing a bit below him, his nose red and quivering in his anger. He looked as though he’d torn out great lumps of his hair.
“Don’t know what you’re talking about, I don’t,” said Peeves, doing a little twirl in midair and experimentally bouncing into a stone wall. “Perhaps old Filchy has cracked.” He opened his mouth and burst into a sort of humming, wordless ditty, complete with a jig. This only seemed to infuriate Filch more; he looked as though he were about to pop.
“What’s happened, then?” piped up a small second year boy, in what he apparently thought was a quiet whisper. It was unfortunate that the whisper carried, however, and Filch spun around, fixing all the Gryffindors with an extremely menacing and bloodshot glare.
“I’ll tell you what’s happened,” he growled, his jaw trembling. “Someone’s gone and nicked five nifflers and set them loose on the castle and one of them’s gone missing.” He looked angry anew at the very spectacle, and appeared to be estimating just how much damage he’d be cleaning for the next few days. He turned back to Peeves, who was now eyeing the students with a gaze that spoke of malicious intentions.
“I’m heading straight off to Dumbledore, Peeves, the moment I catch that last niffler,” he scowled, brandishing his fist as though hoping to take the poltergeist one-on-one. “And then you’ll be banished, and oh, won’t you be sorry…” With a final excruciatingly nasty look at Peeves, he strode off toward the staircase just as the Ravenclaw students appeared on their way down to dinner. Peeves watched him go and then made a rather rude gesture at his retreating back before giving a mad cackle and zooming off in the other direction; a loud clank followed soon after from the end of the corridor.
Unable to hold it in any longer, James let out a loud roar of laughter, sinking weakly to the floor and burying his face in his knees. Upon seeing this, Sirius joined him, and the passing Gryffindors looked warily at them as they headed off down to dinner.
“Remus, you are without a doubt the most brilliant, flawless, handsome, wise –“ James choked, tears streaming from beneath his glasses. He tried finishing the list of sugary compliments but humor caught him in the middle, and he began howling again, holding his stomach now.
“Save it, James,” Remus said, but he looked rather pleased with how well the prank had come off. Sirius stretched out his hands to be helped up from the floor, breathing the after-hysterics wheezy laugh and still grinning madly.
“One of our best, I’d say,” he said finally, clapping first Remus, then Peter, and finally Beth on the back. James somehow managed to struggle to his feet and swallowed down the last of his uncontrollable giggles.
“Great way to end off seven years, at any rate,” he said, and Sirius turned to look at him as though he didn’t quite understand.
James raised his eyebrows, fiddling a bit with his glasses. “Well, we’re not going to be able to do this much longer,” he rationed. “We’re about to join up, aren’t we?” He didn’t use the name of the Order, but Beth saw it was obvious that’s what he was talking about.
Something fell slightly in Sirius’s face. He didn’t seem to have given thought to having to give up the tomfoolery entirely. “Oh… yeah,” he said at last, sticking his hands idly in the pockets of his robes. “Well then… this was a good way to end it.”
Beth felt a slight jolt in the pit of her stomach; it was as though it was the end of something, the start of another epoch entirely in their lives. She couldn’t say exactly what had brought those words to her mind, because she knew that they sounded sort of stupid, but it was a very real feeling nonetheless. Her eyes darted between the four boys – her best friends in the entire world, James and Sirius and Peter and Remus – and knew that each of them felt it as well.
As one, they started for the entrance hall, all knowing that it was – at least in part – something symbolic, and beyond words.
A/N: So, I was looking over my well-worn outline for this story the other day, and trying to change what I'd written and crossed out and re-written to fit the actual chapter content of my draft. And then I realized -- I only have two chapters left to write for this. So I can say with an air of near-confidence that this story will wind up being thirty-one chapters. That's crazy that I'm so near the end! Where did time go?
Thanks so much for all the reviews, guys. It's just incredible. And please don't hesitate to keep leaving them, really! Even one line will completely make my day!